Fulton residents happy with frozen assessments, some cities concerned

Atlanta Public Schools could face an $18 million funding shortfall. The city of Alpharetta is delaying planned initiatives like body cameras for officers. And Hapeville has cut funding for several public safety improvements.

All because Fulton County commissioners elected last week to freeze property values at 2016 levels. Wednesday, members of the county’s board of assessors voted to make the adjustment.

Before the freeze, the proposed residential tax digest was $36.3 billion — up $6.6 billion — for 2017. But there was an outcry from residents, who complained about sticker shock after receiving their assessments. Half of the county’s more than 317,000 parcels had assessed values that increased 20 percent or more.

Though most of the 17 taxing jurisdictions in the county were pleased with the move, cities and school districts have to reassess their budgets and their plans for the year.

“There’s a whole long list of things we’re not going to be able to do,” said William Whitson, the Hapeville city manager.

Fulton’s cities and the Atlanta and Fulton school districts have the ability to increase their tax rates to make up for the shortfalls, though many are reluctant to raise taxes.

Atlanta Public Schools superintendent Meria Carstarphen also told board members they could consider cutting staff, rescinding promised employee raises or dipping into the district’s savings to manage the gap.

Still, there are plenty of cities whose leaders say they don’t expect the county’s decision to have much impact on their bottom lines.

“Of course, our residents are pleased,” said Mountain Park city administrator Karen Segars, who added that leaders there had intended to reduce the tax rate. “We have such strong reserves, it doesn’t really make a difference to us.”

In Fairburn, Mayor Mario Avery said he doesn’t expect any impact — the city won’t budget until September, and hadn’t anticipated any increase in its needs. Roswell spokesperson Julie Brechbill said that city approved the same tax rate it’s had since 2009, and still anticipates bringing in more money than it spends. Chattahoochee Hills city manager Robbie Rokovitz said council members are happy with the move, and are still considering reducing their tax rate.

And in Atlanta, officials anticipate that they will be able to decrease the tax rate, a spokesperson said. City council members had already advocated for a reduction in values when assessments came out last month, saying that they were too high.

In Milton, spokesperson Shannon Ferguson said the city is in a “holding pattern” while waiting for the final details about the county tax digest. Milton officials wrote a letter to Fulton County leaders urging them to freeze the assessments, and Ferguson said city officials “certainly are pleased with the relief.”

College Park City Manager Terrence Moore said anticipates no problems. But, he said, “something needs to be addressed longer term.”

“Clearly, this is a time of economic prosperity,” he said. “Clearly, that should be reflected in property values.”

In Sandy Springs, Mayor Rusty Paul echoed the sentiment, saying the decision to freeze was the best that could be made “under the circumstances.”

“However, the assessors need to fix the system so that they keep pace with market conditions,” Paul said. “Also, I hope the General Assembly applies to all of Fulton County the system Sandy Springs adopted several years ago so increased assessments don’t automatically translate into increased taxes.”

Marvin Dereef, deputy chief financial officer of Fulton County Schools, said he didn’t know what kind of gap the school district might see, but that the district had based its budget on the 6 percent assessment increase.

In Alpharetta, spokesman James Drinkard said everything from hiring more janitorial staff to expanding a bike share program to hiring an assistant fire marshal is on hold until the city sees how much revenue is really coming in.

“It might be that we’re fine and those initiatives can proceed,” Drinkard said.

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